The Essence of Chinese Painting (VII)
At regular intervals, I try to analyze various aspects of Chinese painting, its philosophy, concepts, techniques, etc. based on short contributions. I studied Chinese art, lived in China for 5 years, studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and wrote my dissertation on Chinese free-hand style painting. My pictures are presented HERE. More articles can be found in The Essence of Chinese Painting.
Today we want to dedicate ourselves to a small album sheet by the artist Zha Shibiao. It is one of the images that is seldom found in publications, one that looks very simple at first glance and only shows its charm and mastery when we take some time for a closer look and reflection.
Zha Shibiao or Cha Shih-piao (Chinese: 查士标; 1615–1698) was a Chinese calligrapher and landscape painter from Anhui. He was affiliated with the Anhui School, also known as the Xin’an School, which is noted for dry brushstrokes and sparse compositions.
At first glance, the content of the picture seems very simple: an old man is rowing across the water in his boat. There is a tree in the foreground. A simple motif, a simple picture though tells us a lot about the essence of Chinese painting.
First of all, let’s take a look at the structure of the picture: A tree stands vertically in the middle, which – on closer inspection – turns out to be 2 trees. At this point, the trunk, “our eye enters the painting” is subsequently guided through the picture (using the brushstrokes used). These two trees fulfill the principle: “zhu – ke” (主 – 客) host and guest. The tree closer to the viewer shows dry branches, it is the more experienced, the host. With a gentle curve, it almost lovingly embraces the guest tree. This one has fresh twigs, branches, and leaves and is thus younger in years. The darker branches at the bottom center, the dark, vertical branch in the middle, and the two-line colophone on the far right create a limited space that can be seen both as void and as a rock, and as the branches pointing to the colophone this impression gets strengthened.
The darker “V” – shaped branch in the middle of the painting also creates a connection with the man (an imaginary line to the man’s hat). The left rudder again points to the starting point of our “journey”, through the picture to the trunk of the tree. Twice the painter tries to enlarge the actual picture surface and thereby creates space. On the one hand, this happens through the right rudder that points out of the sheet, on the other hand, he has a branch pointing out of the picture at the top middle of the picture and the branches next to it lead back into the picture -our mind makes us mentally enlarge the painting.
We already have been talking about this: a trick to let strokes indicate a direction by creating an imaginary line which leads to a point in the distance which is called in Chinese painting ” (意 到 笔 不到” (the sense arrives, the line [literally brush] does not arrive). This principle can not only be found in almost every Chinese picture, but it is an integral part of Chinese calligraphy too, especially the “xingshu” (行书 running script) and “cao-shu” (草书 grass script). In addition to this masterful structure of the picture, Zha Shibiao impresses with his masterful painting technique.
We have already stated that it is an older, drier tree and a young, fresh one. All of this was done with just a few brushstrokes. But more than that, based on the quality of the ink, we also learn something about what was not shown, namely the environment:
The mist that lies over the water, even the moisture, is expressed by the quality of the ink. This goes so far that we can even guess how the fog is thicker in the lower part than at the top, where the clarity of the lines in the branches testifies to good visibility.
Lines in Chinese painting must also be able to exist under calligraphic aspects. Even more, over time, a canon has developed in painting itself as to how exactly lines must look, and what they must be reminiscent of, namely, for example, “rat tails”, like “lines written in the sand with an awl” or lines that look like “corridors of woodworms” to name a few. These 3 lines would be of totally different quality.
In our painting, the right rudder looks like a line like a hairpin. (Hairpins in ancient China were mostly made of silver and, after frequent use, were no longer straight but had many small bends).
Here is another example of how dots are used to paint leaves.
Let’s briefly summarize what makes a “good” line in a Chinese image:
First of all, it is the boundary or shape line of an object. Then it describes the nature of the object shown. And it describes the surroundings of the object, and it must be good calligraphy.
Zha Shibiao also succeeded in capturing a poetic touch. Without any effort, we immediately think of a few Tang poems when we look at this painting. And something else distinguishes the picture: While we enjoy the silence of the place, we realize that there is of course no such thing as absolute silence in nature. Insects, birds, and fish that jump up create the kind of silence we know in Daoism. This, and how the fisherman is pictorially related to his surroundings, reflects the Taoist world of thought in the best possible way.
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